What shall our children learn, not only about the history of our country but about even the most dramatic of current events? If teachers dare to speak about the terror of the recent attack on the democratic transfer of power at the Capitol, should they be forced into a humiliating public disclaimer, as modeled by Senator Cruz on Fox TV, or perhaps just threatened with unemployment?
If students learn about historic oppression, such as the denial of rights under law, the practices of violent intimidation, the refusal to honor treaties, or any of the other methods by which the privileges of people with greater power obstruct the long struggle for justice, shall we condemn their sources? Ban the books, close the museums, fire the teachers, defund the arts, and however possible curse the messenger?
It has been easy and, regrettably, effective for voices in backlash against legal, cultural and demographic changes to condemn the messengers that provide education. Laws that assure more equality with regard to gender, sexual orientation, race, or disability are labeled socialist or an overreach of the welfare state or just too costly for society.
Cultural diversity is fine for food marts but otherwise it threatens white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant traditions. Demographic shifts imply changes in the face(s) of the population to the degree that a default to white racial and ethnic dominance might decline. The recent firestorm over how to discuss Jan. 6th, or the extended inferno over critical race theory, are just the most topical illustrations of a deep and enduring effort to deny the truth and defend the backlash.
But, as George Orwell famously said, “however much you deny the truth, the truth goes on existing.” If people seriously care about resolving the personal injuries and social injustice of racism, they need to acknowledge the truth of historic and current white privilege and be prepared to level the playing field. This does not require that white people denigrate themselves; merely that they understand racial dynamics and resist whatever perpetuates harm.
To draw from a similar domain of human rights, men have not needed to humiliate themselves to oppose patriarchy. But to resolve the personal injuries and social injustice of patriarchy, they are obligated to see male privilege where it exists and explore how to level the playing field. Opposition to injustices does not demean people; it dignifies them.
While outspoken opponents of historic truth have been grabbing headlines, the Government Accounting Office, without sufficient public recognition in my view, published a report (Nov. 24, 2021) on Bullying, Hate Speech, Hate Crimes, and Victimization in Schools. Their data suggests that one in four students ages 12 to 18 are exposed to racial, homophobic, and antisemitic slurs and to anti-immigrant rhetoric at school. Hate crimes at schools increased by 80% in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Wouldn’t most people of good will respond to this with the greatest hope that educators would promote a climate of inclusion, instead of trying to gag the teachers?